from sky to seed

How the “Missouri Gardener’s Companion” Unmoored My Inner Feminist

Light Reading.

A couple of years ago, I devoured a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s magical Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  It changed my life.  Gone the absurd practice of buying out of season pineapples!  Throw out abominations of food: instant mashed potatoes and top ramen and the like.

But I’ve fallen short of my initial goals to go local.  Farmers market hours aren’t exactly ideal to a 40-hour work week schedule, and who carries cash these days and, though I’m not proud to admit it, it’s just so convenient to go to a place like Super Target when items on your shopping list include non-groceries like coat hangars.

In short, we do what we can.

My relationship with food has definitely changed in recent years.  I cook a lot more, eat a lot less, and eat as much fresh produce as possible.  So my massive garden fits into my philosophical goals about food quite well, and I chose heirlooms because of their superior taste.  It’s an heirloom garden, it’s a chef’s garden, and it’s mine.

Food politics is a discussion that a lot of people (Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver) a lot smarter than me know a lot more about.  If you’re interested, check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I read them all when they first came out, and though the specific facts about why we should “eat food, mostly plants, not too much” and “go local” have flown out of my head, I flat plain believe that it’s simply better to try eating plants grown nearby rather than participating in a (commonly corporate) system that sells (tasteless, genetically modified) plants from a different hemisphere.

But let’s be real.  I don’t know much about gardening, but I know enough to know that large-scale farming is complicated, and I’m not naive enough to believe I can just stick seeds in the soil and expect them to come up right.  What I need is the simple slacker’s guide to large-scale heirloom farming.

So I ordered the Missouri Gardener’s Companion six months ago to prep my brain for the massive project ahead.  But I didn’t crack it open until last weekend.  It’s a great resource for someone in my position, but I was amazed to discover how ridiculously lazy I was about actually employing the advice given.  Such advice includes getting soil tested and paying attention to hardiness zones.

I could just stop at pointing out my laziness and then declare a nice public resolve to be better, work harder, try more.  But I know myself pretty well, and I know I won’t.  Not here.  Maybe never.

I never used to be this person.  Is something broken?  Did I lose my spirit?  Or is this the new me: this person who turns blindly to the fields.

My dad’s really disappointed in me right now.  He thinks I should’ve taken my portfolio and my graduate degree gone to The Smithsonian or National Geographic.  He wants me to produce stories for Radiolab or This American Life.  He wants me to go back to writing script at Oregon Public Braodcasting.  He wants he wants he wants.  Instead, I fell hopelessly in love (how impractical!) and ran off to rural Missouri to manage a farm.  Thrown a perfectly promising career into a ditch.  Nevermind the terrible economy.

I recognize that I could’ve framed my choice in some romantic way.  It sounds romantic and it is.  It feels like freedom and it is.  (And in a way, it looks like feminism, because isn’t the beauty of my generation’s version of feminism the ability to choose?)  I know both reporters at the New York Times and stay-at-home moms, and respect them equally on their own turns.  All are excellent at what they do.  But you’re judged so much when you have an inch of talent and choose not to put it to use.  Especially when, like me and farming, you’re not so great at what you chose to do.

So I keep chewing on this question of choice, wondering how much free will is actually coming into play, and how much of it is just plain old fear keeping me out of a ruthless industry, and how much of it is the seductive temperament of ego and pride. Because I’ve had those writing contracts and internships, and felt horribly unhappy the entire time.  I’d wake up every morning wanting to do nothing but lay in bed and read, or take my dog to the park, or try the beautiful new corn and avocado salad recipe I’d torn out of a magazine.

“But all careers make you feel that way!” my working women friends say.

Yes, but does it have to be my life?  If you’re given the rare option to choose what you do with your life, why wouldn’t — shouldn’t — you choose what brings pure joy over pure pride?

So for now, I choose joy.

But still, I wonder.

“What’s happiness?  The moment before you want more happiness.” — Don Draper, Mad Men

To want more happiness.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible.  At times, the happiness is so sharp it seems unbearable.  Jon touches me more in public than I’m accustomed to – gestures that feel like a move toward ownership: The quick way he leans in, his hands closed around my knees.  One loves it, to be staked, but still.  It feels so very anti-feminist.  My acceptance, how much I enjoy submitting to his whims, is a foreign turn.

Last September, I broke up with a long-term, great-on-paper boyfriend I’d tentatively planned to marry.  Afterwards, I felt nothing but absolute freedom, absolute lightness.  I made bold lists of all the things I wanted to do now that I didn’t have to marry Ben any time soon: China!  Backpack Mongolia!   Internships!  (Outside, InStyle, Smithsonian, Family Circle, Backcountry, This American Life)  Writing retreats! (Philip Roth, Denali, Taos, Wyoming) Take Pax and camp Gros Morne!  Explore the Bruce Peninsula!  Do the rock climbing circuit in Thailand!  Bike New Zealand!  Photograph the Continental Divide trail!

And, at the time, I really did want these things.  I found myself folded into a little affair with Jon that I thought, surely, would end, but it hasn’t yet, and now here I am, living with him.  He’s out, right this minute, buying a tiller for my fields.

One of the most obvious differences between dating a man my age and a man nearly twice my age is that, for the latter, much of his ambitions have already been fulfilled.  He’s had his career, built his life.  And mine is barely cresting the horizon.  My dreams are flexible.  But still.  There are things I want, eventually, and I’m not certain I can do those things and still accommodate Jon into my life.  Or that he would accommodate my own whims into his.  So how can I not help help but feel that I’m giving something up?

Or do the most difficult choices always involve a kind of sacrifice?  How do you know when it’s worth it?

And would I feel more secure if not for the constant badgering by my own father?

There’ve been a million articles about these sorts of sacrifices that women (okay, anyone, but it only feels like women to me) must make, including that viral Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Months ago, sitting in my house with nothing to do, I worked myself up into a conniption about this and called my sister, Katie.

“Anything can happen, in any relationship,” she told me.  “You just have to do what makes you happy in the present moment.  What’s going to keep you happy?”

Ah, the happiness question.  It all comes back to that.

I love that card I’ve been seeing drifting around trendy paper goods shops that says: Basic Needs: Food, Water, You.

I’ve known Jon my entire life; his life defined my own; I shaped myself against it.  And so to have him here, like this, what a miraculous gift.  You don’t turn your back on that.  It feels like a resurrection.  It feels like grace.

But that the lightness I feel in my blood about bending him still scares me.

Last February, we were lying in bed while the sky faded to white and I said, “How serious are you about wanting me to spend the summer farming with you?  I mean, one does not apply for the Smithsonian Magazine or This American Life and then turn down an offer because, hey, this guy wants me to work on his farm.”

“Don’t reorganize your life just for me,” he said.  “But I do want you to come.”

Like so many major decisions that involve sacrifice, is what you get in the trade off enough?

There are no answers now.

So I turn to the fields, dig in the soil, plant seeds by hand, instead.  And pray that somewhere between the sowing and the growing, there will be something that looks like healing, too.  And something to temper the disquiet in my heart.

3 Responses to “How the “Missouri Gardener’s Companion” Unmoored My Inner Feminist”

  1. J.D. McLaughlin

    I feel like your friend asked you one of the best questions. And it’s so simple and so easy–and I need to start following it myself. If it won’t make me happy… why do it?

    At any rate, this post reminds me of things I have been thinking about a lot lately. I truly believe there are two sides to me that belong on two different paths that just don’t mix–and you sound pretty similar.

    I’ve had people tell me that this is the time to go down the other path that I didn’t chose, don’t have regrets.

    But here’s the thing. If you walk away from the just-as-enjoyable path you’re on now, you’re still going to have regrets. It’s the difference between regretting what you didn’t do versus what you walked away from.

    So it’s simple (in theory). Do what makes you happy, try to incorporate that little piece of you in the life you choose (whether it be gardening on a NYC rooftop or breaking into freelance work in the same fields in your farm “downtime”), and let go of regrets.

    You make a choice, you go with it. And you’re either happy or you’re not, and if you’re not, you fix it.

    Of course, by “you” I mean you, and me, and any other person with the same dilemma.

    Best of luck to you in your decision either way! And I understand how hard it is (my mother was happy I got a “real” job making “real” money, regardless of if I work 50+ hour weeks and am stressed/bored), but it’s time to block out other people’s expectations.

    I’m off my soapbox now!


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